Each year as I pack for Cambodia my mind starts imagining the adventure: the sights, smells, sounds and general chaos. I love adventure. And each year as I look back on my trip I realise that I’ve shifted in my thinking… I’ve never come home the same.
In my view, the Plunge Global Xposure tour of Cambodia can be described with one word: confronting. I’m not trying to sound hyperbolic or dramatic. It’s just that every time I visit Cambodia (and it’s been quite a few times now) I come away confronted by a new revelation of my self, my culture, my faith or my worldview.
So the following is sort of a run down of the last four year, each adding to the experience of the previous year and growing my appreciation for this beautiful, complex culture.
I’m not a small bloke. Dragging around 100+ kgs (and then there’s my back pack!) takes a toll. The unrelenting humidity and the relative similarity of daytime and nighttime temperatures mean that there’s no escape.
I am confronted by my addiction to comfort, my sense that being in a cool, low humidity environment is somehow a “right”. Of course, it’s not my right, it’s a reflection of the relative ease with which the rest of my life is lived. I’m confronted by my own sense of entitlement.
I love adventure, and I love the spontaneity of places like Cambodia. I don’t mind changing plans and adjusting to the circumstances as they present themselves… but of course, in a team environment I quickly remember that, for some, not knowing what we’re doing, where we’re heading or even how we’re going to get there is emotionally very draining.
On top of this the nobility within the Khmer culture seems deeply at odds with the utter horror of the Khmer Rouge regime and the indiscriminate and ideologically driven killing that occurred. Tuol Sleng (S21 Prison) and the Killing Fields are emotionally incomprehensible. I can’t put myself in that situation. I can’t imagine the terror, and, truth be told, I don’t want to.
I’m confronted by both my desire to have everything on my terms AND the reality that the perpetrators of such atrocities were people – just like me – who decided that their vision of the world was the only way, and that it was for the good of all to bend the nation to their will. What would I do – what could I do – if I had the capacity to make people see things from my perspective?
Cambodia is a Buddhist nation. And yet, like most national faiths (including Australia’s nominal Christian status) there is much more at play than the varnish of the presenting religion. Symbols of the spiritual awareness of Cambodians are everywhere: sacrifices to local gods, spirit houses, ancestor worship… as well as Churches, Mosques and other places of worship.
Signs of spiritual bondage seem apparent to my rather untrained eyes. Of course, at the very same time, I also observe a genuine sense of community support, love and acceptance that puts my western individualism to shame.
How do I reconcile the seeming paradox between the theological truth that we worship a triune God who is community within himself and my western faith, which prizes individualism with its emphasis on personal piety and individual devotion? I’m confronted with the reality that I must ask at least as many spiritual questions of myself as answers offered to my Animist / Buddhist friends.
Alongside the spiritual questions, journeying through Cambodia confronts me with pressing social questions. The majority of working Cambodians are functionally uneducated, surviving on less than $2.50 per day.
Even so, I observe a level of sharing and community bond that is unknown in my home context. My suspicion is that our affluence actually keeps us apart – it makes us autonomous, individuated selves with no need for those around us.
I am deeply, profoundly, confronted by my lack of community, and indeed my lack of any real desire for one. And yet I worship a God who makes himself known in community. Sobering stuff.
Finally of course, spending three weeks in close quarters away from family brings a whole lot of tensions to the surface. How do I love people I’m (at times) struggling to like?
Working out ways of relating in the crucible of homesickness, culture stress and maybe even physical illness is a profoundly confronting moment. And in my experience it is one of the Holy Spirit’s key ways of transforming us in to the likeness of the Son, Jesus.
So there you go… a staffer’s reflection on the Plunge Global Xposure Trip to Cambodia. So, would YOU like to come? No one’s scared of the odd confrontation, are they?